Neither Sorcery nor Alchemy

Can we redefine how people perceive technology?

A screenshot of one of Apple’s early advertisements for the iPad.

Writing Software: Art or Science?

When I worked at Cerner, the CEO, Neal Patterson, would love to ask a roomful of software engineers and architects a simple, but provocative question:

“Is writing software an art or a science?”

The resulting discussion would be lengthy, philosophical and lively. It was always interesting how people would lean one way and then the next… but an hour later everyone would agree: it’s both. Writing software is as much Art as it is Science. The most common praise between code authors involves how fast or well something works… but there’s more to it than that.

A quick dose of perceived reality

When I started working at Facebook, my world was quickly enveloped with the reality of the “Social Graph”. Suddenly I could see just how powerful a click of the “Like” button could be. I wasn’t just telling Facebook I liked an author: I was connecting myself to a branch of a system that could then intelligently connect me elsewhere.

…and yet most don’t understand why or how it works.

But it goes much further than that. I had a friend reach out to me, convinced that a former boyfriend with lots of money had hired someone to hack her Twitter. She was sure that there were “programs out there” for which you could pay as little as $50 and take over someone’s account. I sent her a link to Twitter’s phishing scam FAQ and told her to email their support team. Her last reply:

Art becomes Sorcery, Science becomes Alchemy

When someone buys a lawnmower, they understand at a basic level how it works: gas engine, spinning blades, cuts grass. And the manufacturer includes a manual with plenty of warnings and are thus released from any liability of damage or injury… but they might as well leave it out. Your car breaks down on the side of a highway? You pop the hood and take a look inside. Why?

Software understanding its users has trumped
users understanding their software.

And because of this, software becomes sorcery. Harry Potter becomes real life: consumers are muggles, reliant on the wizards who conjured these amazements to keep our world working, (and safe). Only those who have raw talent, nurtured that talent, trained, dedicated their lives to these magical constructs know for certain how they work.

That… is an amazing keyboard.

The New Perk

Imagine if people had an opportunity to understood software better at a fundamental level?

Two things happen: support infrastructure is relieved of stress, and savvy users are better equipped to tell you what they want.

Sure, we may lose a bit of our magical personas. But I think it’s a small price to pay.

How do we do it?

“Never oppose if you can’t propose.” It’s a great mantra for software development, and it’s one I’ll hold here. I’m supporting four solutions that could lead us to a better ecosystem.

More Open-source Initiatives

For end-users, more open-source software means greater transparency and more understanding. Knowing that your favorite iPhone app isn’t hundreds of thousands of lines of code that doesn’t transfer your contact list or bank information to the developer should be a fact easily believed. Public, readable code can help.

Pivot Marketing

Product marketing still serves as the biggest instigator of a product relationship. Not only should they and their materials be well-versed in what the product is (and isn’t), both should resist the temptation to cast their products as “mystical”. Leaving the details to the user manual, (which, let’s face it, most people ignore until they have a problem), will only lead to frustration.

Creating a Resource for Popular Culture

Sources of entertainment can be more effective in education than any textbook or manual. Case in point: some tourists ask to see more info on Jack when they visit the Titanic museum.

Creating Popular Culture

My last suggestion is perhaps the most ambitious of all… but as a software engineer with a background in theatre, I had to list it.

User Interface Engineer and geek; Presentation Lead at Elastic, previously at Facebook; married to a gorgeous Canadian; community theatre stages are a 3rd home.

User Interface Engineer and geek; Presentation Lead at Elastic, previously at Facebook; married to a gorgeous Canadian; community theatre stages are a 3rd home.